Is Putin Really as Foolish as We Are?

by John Feffer

Nixon lied.

Surely this is not a shocker. But what’s interesting about the latest revelation concerning Nixon and Vietnam is that the most duplicitous president in U.S. history actually knew that the U.S. air war in Southeast Asia was a dismal failure. Even as Nixon was telling the media that the saturation bombings of Vietnam and Laos were “very effective,” he was privately acknowledging the opposite.

“We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam,” Nixon wrote to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, on January 3, 1972. “The result = Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force.”

The Obama administration has unleashed a similar air war in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State. The results have been comparable to Nixon’s “zilch.” The Islamic State has not replaced its black flag with a white one, nor has it shrunk appreciably in size. Obama’s attempt to unseat Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has not produced much either, other than increased violence and chaos in the poor, benighted country. The Pentagon’s effort to train and re-insert “moderate” rebels into the country has proven so disastrous that the Obama administration recently suspended the project.

Meanwhile, the CIA’s rival plan to simply ship armaments to existing forces fighting against the government in Damascus has yielded more than “zilch,” at least according to recent reports. Indeed, the success anti-Assad forces have had with anti-tank missiles helped persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene on the side of the Syrian government to forestall checkmate and prolong stalemate.

Since Putin is Russian, chess has been the go-to metaphor for portraying recent Kremlin strategy. No surprise, then, that Putin’s move in Syria has been hailed (by some) as the brilliant gambit of a grandmaster. They’re wrong. It’s more like a desperate pawn sacrifice designed to stave off the inevitably grisly endgame.

Like Nixon, Putin would like us to think he’s tricky. But they’re both just brutal tacticians of limited imagination.

Putin’s Folly

Since the end of last month, the Russian government has sent fighter jets, tanks, drones and a couple hundred of soldiers to Syria. It has already conducted hundreds of air strikes. It’s even launched cruise missile strikes from ships anchored in the Caspian Sea at targets nearly a thousand miles away. The Russian government claims that it’s targeting the Islamic State, but many of the air strikes appear to have hit other rebel groups fighting the Assad regime. And in the short period that the air strikes have taken place, they’ve predictably generated the usual reports of “collateral damage,” including 17 civilians in Talbiseh at the very outset on September 30.

The Russian moves, if only because they represent something fundamentally different in a conflict that has ground on for more than four years, have attracted enormous media attention. Putin’s audacity has even garnered something approximating grudging respect from across the political spectrum.

His speech at the UN last month, which heralded the more muscular Russian policy, qualified him as the “new sheriff in town” and his country as the “real powerbroker in the Middle East,”according to conservative national security analyst John Schindler. Economist contributor Edward Lucas termed Putin’s speech a “triumph” while his decisive intervention in Syria, in comparison to the blunders of the West, make the Russian leader seem “a responsible statesman, to whom we turn in desperation for help.” Juan Cole, after dismissing the Obama administration efforts as ineffectual, concludes that “Putin knows what he wants and has an idea about how to achieve it.”

Even for some on the left, Putin continues to represent a praiseworthy counterforce to American power and the kind of iron-fist response to the Islamic State that some crave. “Putin is not going to stop for anything or anyone,” writes Mike Whitney at Counterpunch. “He’s going to nail these guys while he has them in his gun-sights, then he’s going to wrap it up and go home. By the time the Obama crew gets its act together and realizes that they have to stop the bombing pronto or their whole regime change operation is going to go up in smoke, Putin’s going to be blowing kisses from atop a float ambling through Red Square in Moscow’s first tickertape parade since the end of WW2.”

It’s safe to say that most military interventions look decisive at the beginning. That’s when pundits and policymakers talk of “cakewalks” and “troops home by Christmas.”

But there’s really no reason to believe that Russia’s military intervention in Syria will produce results appreciably different from what the United States and its allies have already (not) achieved. President Obama, who is probably enjoying his own private moments ofschadenfreude, has predicted that Russia will descend into a “quagmire” in Syria (though, of course, the president hasn’t publicly acknowledged the quasi-quagmire into which he himself has tiptoed).

It’s impossible to know what Putin hopes to achieve from this gambit other than to guarantee Russian involvement in whatever happens next. Perhaps all sides will throw up their hands and take refuge at the negotiating table, with Putin emerging, as he did after the chemical weapons compromise in September 2013, as the master diplomat. Or perhaps the war will continue to grind on, but with more firepower added to the equation and thus more casualties, more extremist reactions, and more desperate refugees, with Putin playing the role of master spoiler who wants to pin the West down in an intractable conflict. In either case, Putin would earn his title as grandmaster of geopolitics.

I suspect, however, that Vladimir Putin is just as foolish and trigger-happy as any world leader with a large expeditionary force and the itch to use it. Attempting to save Bashar al-Assad in Syria is tantamount to trying to prop up Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam in the 1960s. The Russian government will claim success for its air war — just as the United States and allies do for theirs — and there will no doubt be some tactical victories as the Assad government reclaims some rebel-held territory.

But Putin will not likely accomplish the physically impossible task that Obama and others have already attempted: bombing a broken country back into shape. At what point will the Russian leader write a confidential note to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to confess that their strategy of “strategic bombing” has yielded “zilch”?

Rolling Back the Arab Spring

It’s heartening that the Nobel Peace Prize this year went not only to the one bright legacy of the Arab Spring — the democratic transformation of Tunisia — but to the civic groups that made it happen. Two trade unions, the oldest human rights organization in the Arab world, and a lawyer’s group, which together form the National Dialogue Quartet, have created a civil society that is so far strong enough to resist religious extremists, political strongmen, and outside intervention.

Tunisia is quite literally the anti-Syria, having taken the path that the initial non-violent protesters attempted and that Bashar al-Assad so ruthlessly suppressed. Tunisia is far from perfect, but it’s the one place in the region where “people power” hasn’t given way to civil war, counter-coups, and vertiginous descents into chaos.

Vladimir Putin has looked on all that the Arab Spring has wrought and fretted. Not only did he lose reliable allies like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, but he witnessed the rise of Islamic extremist groups that have direct links to secessionist movements within Russia itself. Where strong men reasserted control, as in Egypt, Putin has been quick to renew support. Opposition to Sunni extremism has also proven a useful means of establishing new understandings with Iran and Iraq. Putin doesn’t care about the human rights records of any of these governments. Given the periodic outbreaks of people power inside Russia itself, Putin appreciates the need for the occasional crackdown.

Putin probably doesn’t care one way or another about Bashar al-Assad. If someone else could hold the country together more effectively and mount a credible campaign against the Islamic State, the Russian president would embrace the alternative in a heartbeat. In the end, Putin doesn’t want Russia’s tenuous claim to geopolitical influence beyond its borders — primarily a stake in the vitally important Middle East — to disappear simply because of the political or religious passions of people on the ground. You can hear echoes of Nixon and Kissinger in such Russian realpolitik.

In this sense, Putin’s intervention in Syria is no different from his intervention in Ukraine — just substitute the Arab Spring for the Euromaidan, Islamic fundamentalists for Ukrainian fascists, and the beleaguered semi-state of Bashar al-Assad for the declared semi-state of the Donetsk People’s Republic. In Ukraine as in Syria, Putin is winging it. With Ukraine, however, the expedition is across the border and the lay of the land somewhat more familiar. In Syria, despite surveillance drones and guided missile technology, Putin is literally flying blind.

Which puts him in good company.

Following in Our Footsteps

As Nixon discovered to his dismay in the early 1970s, the virtues of bombing campaigns are often oversold.

U.S. policymakers, led by Robert McNamara, believed that they were applying the lessons learned from World War II about the efficacy of air strikes. But as James Russell points out in LobeLog, “The allied bombers missed most of what they were aiming at, did not end Germany’s means to wage war, and did not convince the German people to give up the fight.” Greater accuracy didn’t produce better results in Vietnam — and even greater accuracy in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t ultimately create outcomes on the ground that the United States desired.

Putin’s attempt at “shock and awe” in Syria has all the hallmarks of failed U.S. policies of the past. In the initial days, for instance, the Russian media has focused on the pinpoint accuracy of the air strikes in taking out “most” of the Islamic State’s ammunition and heavy machinery. It will take some time before more critical reports — of Russian bombings of medical facilitiesor missiles that went astray in Iran — reach Putin’s constituents.

Then there’s the emphasis on the preemptive nature of the attacks. “It’s better to fight them there than here,” George W. Bush famously said (more than once). Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev essentially said the same thing last week:

“It’s better to do it abroad rather than fight terrorism inside the country.”

Of course, the Russians have more to worry about. Neither the Taliban nor Saddam Hussein had any plans to attack the United States (al-Qaeda was a different matter). The Islamic State, meanwhile, has thrown a thousand Chechen fighters into battle, and who knows what might happen if these battle-hardened veterans ever make it back to Russia proper.

A handful of Russian tourists and hostages have died at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Middle East. A few of the Russian Marines now hunkered down in Syria will probably die as well, particularly now that the Homs Liberation Movement (part of the Free Syrian Army) has promised to use suicide bombers to weed out the Russians. Just this week, as a shot across the bow, insurgents shelled the Russian embassy in Damascus.

But Russians will only feel the true consequences of Putin’s actions when the next wave of retaliatory bombings strikes Russia itself. The Moscow subway was hit by two suicide bombers in 2010 and the Moscow airport was targeted in 2011. Just this week, the Russian government has reportedly thwarted another attack on public transportation, allegedly organized this time by the Islamic State. Here, then, is where Putin’s chess-playing skills reveal themselves to be sub-par. He is throwing his pieces into battle without protecting his flanks. The Russian public should brace itself for blowback.

This is the ugliest parallel with American follies. After all, the air wars that the Bush administration conducted in the 2000s continue to haunt the United States even after the dramatic toppling of the kings. Indeed, only as the wars continued in Iraq and Afghanistan long after Saddam and the Taliban had been deposed did the United States learn that a symmetrical game of chess was a poor metaphor for the strategies needed to address asymmetrical warfare against a determined adversary. Bombing a country to rubble only produces a flinty determination on the part of the survivors to fight back.

It’s a lesson that Nixon learned (too late), that Obama is struggling to learn (or perhaps struggling to teach his Republican opponents), and that Putin, in the arrogance of his power, probably thinks that he doesn’t need to learn at all.

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.



  1. I think Obama blundered by trying to damage the Syrian economy, prior to the eruption of the vicious civil war. I think the US should have tried to prevent the civil war from erupting.

  2. I am still convinced that many years form now someone will write a book and reveal that CIA was behind the uprising in Syria, just as they were in Afghanistan before USSR.
    There is a president for what Russia is doing and it is US in Afghanistan in 2001. With Russian help US was able to insert several special forces groups to assist the Northern Alliance (leftovers from government troops and anti Taliban warlords) in their fight against the Taliban. Within a month the Taliban was on the run and did not recover till 2005-6.
    In Syria the Syrian Arab Army is trained by Soviet Union and now Russia. So integrating Russian air power is far easier. The hard part for Russia will be clearing and controlling the Turkish border in the north-west of Syria. That terrain is very mountainous and is easy to defend. Once the border is under control ISIS will have a hard time selling oil to Turkey. Without oil for funding and located in mostly desert terrain they will be easier to isolate and destroy piecemeal…

    US is just caught flatfooted because US never had the goal of disrupting ISIS/ISIL/IS the goal was to keep contained and point them towards Assad. If this was not the case then cooperation with Russia would be in US interest.

  3. Mr. Feffer does not deal with one factor that differentiates the Russian bombing from U.S. bombing in effectiveness. The U.S. had no reliable boots on the ground to work with in conjunction with its airstrikes. In Iraq, the government troops fled rather than fought. In Syria, the U.S. had only the largely mythical “moderate” Free Syrian Army that functioned more as a conduit for transferring weapons and supplies to the less savory ISIL, al-Nusrah, and al-Qaeda.

    Russian airstrikes, on the other hand, are being quickly followed up by some of the most motivated fighters in the Mideast, the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and Iran’s Qod Force. And the combination of airstrikes and ground attacks have already turned the tide from a serious losing streak by the Assad government to that government once more being on the attack with the opposition ceding territory. Russia is also combining all of the above with a diplomatic initiative to bring all involved governmental parties and the true Syrian opposition to the negotiation table to hammer out a resolution.

    That does not guarantee that the Russian intervention will lead to a stable Syria, nor does it guarantee that Russia will not find itself in a Syrian quagmire. But Russia has also made it clear that — unlike the U.S. — it has an exit strategy with its airstrikes to end in 3-4 months from its beginning.

    So I see the Russian strategy as being more aimed at turning the tide on the ground to set the stage for diplomatic negotiations than being aimed at military victory, a far more realistic plan than the U.S. has shown in the Middle East thus far.

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